NCAA Tournament Pitfalls to Avoid

Getty Images
Getty Images

At this point, many of you have already filled out your NCAA March Madness brackets for a pool with coworkers or classmates. Even if you haven't seen a basketball game all year, it makes the first weekend of the tournament exciting to have your five dollars riding on the outcome of so many games, and after all, the pool winner usually isn't one of the rabid sports fans in the office. There can be a downside to this seemingly harmless fun, though. Here are a few pitfalls to avoid while betting on the tournament.

Don't Short Kansas

Commodities traders have long used a more sophisticated way to gamble on the tournament than the standard old paper bracket pool. Instead, they treat each team's tournament chances as tradable commodities that they can then buy, sell, and short according to their hunches. As a team's perceived road to the championship gets easier due to upsets or tougher due to injuries, the prices of each team's shares fluctuate accordingly. The eventual champion's shares are all worth some predetermined amount, usually $100.

While a bad opening weekend can't wipe you for the entire tournament out like it does in a standard bracket pool, these systems also lack the whole "put in your five dollars, then sit back and watch" safeguard on your wallet. At various points, the ability to keep buying in has led to some serious debacles. In 1991 a clerical assistant at Paine Webber had a strong feeling that Duke was about to go belly-up and kept shorting the Blue Devils. If you thought Kentucky fans were the only ones who hurt after Christian Laettner's miracle shot to send Duke to the Final Four and their eventual championship, think again; this young clerk lost $330,000 and his job. Another clerk supposedly lost $200,000 trying the same trick with Kentucky during their title campaign in 1996.

Try to Keep Your Job

Everyone loves a good office pool, right? Maybe not. According to a 2006 estimate by consultants at Challenger, Gray, & Christmas, the tournament costs employers upwards of $3.8 billion in lost productivity. While the accuracy of this figure is certainly debatable, it's hard to argue that anyone's more productive while checking four scoreboard tabs every fifteen seconds and then cross-referencing them against their brackets.

Some companies have taken strikingly firm stances against pools. In 1997 Fidelity Investments fired nine employees and disciplined 16 more for participating in football and basketball pools via office email. No word on whether or not Fidelity was just being reasonable; does an investment firm really need someone who picks a 16 seed to win a first-round game every year?

No, Really, Try to Keep Your Job

 In 2003, Rick Neuheisel was the successful young coach of the University of Washington's football team. He'd also received some nice little bumps to his income the previous two years when he pocketed some serious cash in a neighborhood March Madness pool. Participants in Neuheisel's pool picked single teams rather than filling out brackets, and when Maryland won the title in 2002, Neuheisel's $7,000 bid for the Terrapins' rights in the pool returned over $25,000. Even better, the University of Washington had explicitly told him in a memo that off-campus pools like this were kosher with the NCAA.

Whoops! Turns out the pools weren't legal with the NCAA, and the Huskies' compliance office had given Neuheisel some bad information. When Neuheisel wasn't forthcoming with investigators, the school fired him for participating in the pools, and he went from golden boy coach of a Pac-10 power to volunteer coach at a local high school.

In the end, things turned out okay for Neuheisel, though. Since Washington had told him it was okay to enter the pool, he ended up winning a $4.5 million settlement against the school and the NCAA. After a stint as quarterbacks coach for the Ravens, Neuheisel recently got a new head-coaching gig at his alma mater, UCLA, a conference rival of the Washington Huskies.

Don't Ruin It for Everyone

 Part of the allure of winning a pool is that your income will be tax-free, right? You get an envelope of cash the government doesn't know about, and you can spend it on whatever whim you'd like. That used to be true of the March Madness pool at Jody's Club Forest in Staten Island, an annual event that drew throngs of bettors to line up outside the tavern to enter a bracket. The pool, which opened in 1977, cost $10 to enter. In 2006, the pot was $1.5 million.

The pool was technically legal since Jody's wasn't taking any money out of the pot for running the pool, but one winner started to muck things up by filing his winnings with the IRS. Apparently such a large windfall attracted unwanted IRS scrutiny for other recent winners as well as the bar itself. As a result, the pool has been on hiatus for the last two years.

Ethan Trex grew up idolizing Vince Coleman, and he kind of still does. Ethan co-writes Straight Cash, Homey, the Internet's undisputed top source for pictures of people in Ryan Leaf jerseys.

The Time Baby Ruth Sued Babe Ruth

Allsport/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Allsport/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1920, the Curtiss Candy Company introduced the Baby Ruth candy bar, causing a certain baseball player with a very similar name to take notice. Babe Ruth was having a monstrous year—his 54 home runs in the 1920 season were more than any other team in the American League. If you were going to misappropriate someone’s name for a candy bar, Ruth’s was a logical choice.

Sensing opportunity, the Great Bambino struck back by creating his own Babe Ruth Home Run Bar. Curtiss quickly sued Ruth’s company for trademark infringement. But what happened next was surprising: When the Sultan of Swat accused the company of using his name, Curtiss feigned shock. Its bar was named after “Baby” Ruth Cleveland, daughter of President Grover Cleveland.

For years, this has been the oft-repeated explanation, but the argument makes no sense. Cleveland had been out of office for more than two decades and dead for 12 years when the bar debuted. “Baby” Ruth herself had died of diphtheria in 1904, at just 12 years old. Although the country’s most famous baseball star would seem much more likely to have a namesake candy than a former president's departed child, the courts sided with Curtiss.

When Ruth learned of the verdict, he bellowed, “Well, I ain’t eatin’ your damned candy bar anymore!” Somehow, the Baby Ruth bar survived without his support.

10 Winning Facts about Wheaties

General Mills
General Mills

Famous for its vivid orange boxes featuring star athletes and its classic "breakfast of champions" tagline, Wheaties might be the only cereal that's better known for its packaging than its taste. The whole wheat cereal has been around since the 1920s, becoming an icon not just of the breakfast aisle, but the sports and advertising worlds, too. Here are 10 winning facts about it.

1. IT WAS INVENTED BY ACCIDENT.

The Washburn Crosby Company wasn't initially in the cereal business. At the time, the Minnesota-based company—which became General Mills in 1928—primarily sold flour. But in 1921, the story goes, a dietitian in Minneapolis spilled bran gruel on a hot stove. The bran hardened into crispy, delicious flakes, and a new cereal was born. In 1924, the Washburn Crosby Company began selling a version of the flakes as a boxed cereal it called Washburn's Gold Medal Whole Wheat Flakes. A year later, after a company-wide contest, the company changed the name to Wheaties.

2. ITS JINGLE FEATURED A SINGING UNDERTAKER AND A COURT BAILIFF.

Wheaties sales were slow at first, but the Washburn Crosby Company already had a built-in advertising platform: It owned the Minneapolis radio station WCCO. Starting on December 24, 1926, the station began airing a jingle for the cereal sung by a barbershop quartet called the Wheaties Quartet. The foursome sang "Have You Tried Wheaties" live over the radio every week, earning $15 (about $200 today) per performance. In addition to their weekly singing gig, the men of the Wheaties Quartet all also had day jobs: One was an undertaker, one was a court bailiff, one worked in the grain industry, and one worked in printing. The ad campaign eventually went national, helping boost Wheaties sales across the country and becoming an advertising legend.

3. WHEATIES HAS BEEN TIED TO SPORTS SINCE ALMOST THE BEGINNING.

Carl Lewis signs a Wheaties box with his image on it for a young boy.
Track and field Olympic medalist Carl Lewis
Stephen Chernin, Getty Images

Wheaties has aligned itself with the sports world since its early days. In 1927, Wheaties bought ad space at Minneapolis's Nicollet Park, home to a minor league baseball team called the Millers, and in 1933, the cereal brand started sponsoring the team's game-day radio broadcasts on WCCO. Eventually, Wheaties baseball broadcasts expanded to 95 different radio stations, covering teams all over the country and further cementing its association with the sport. Since then, generations of endorsements from athletes of all stripes have helped sell consumers on the idea that eating Wheaties can make them strong and successful just like their favorite players. The branding association has been so successful that appearing on a Wheaties box has itself become a symbol of athletic achievement.

4. WHEATIES HELPED KICK-START RONALD REAGAN'S ACTING CAREER.

In the 1930s, a young sports broadcaster named Ronald Reagan was working at a radio station in Des Moines, Iowa, narrating Wheaties-sponsored Chicago Cubs and White Sox games. As part of this job, Reagan went to California to visit the Cubs' spring training camp in 1937. While he was there, he also did a screen test at Warner Bros. The studio ended up offering him a seven-year contract, and later that year, he appeared in his first starring role as a radio commentator in Love Is On The Air.

5. ATHLETES' PHOTOS DIDN'T ALWAYS APPEAR ON THE FRONT OF BOXES.

Three Wheaties boxes featuring Michael Phelps
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

Although a Wheaties box wouldn't seem complete without an athlete's photo on it today, the cereal didn't always feature athletes front and center. In the early years, the boxes had photos of athletes like baseball legend Lou Gehrig (the first celebrity to be featured, in 1934) on the back or side panels of boxes. Athletes didn't start to appear on the front of the box until 1958, when the cereal featured Olympic pole vaulter Bob Richards.

6. THE FIRST WOMAN ON A WHEATIES BOX WAS A PILOT.

Former Track and Field Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersey stands with a poster of her new Wheaties box after it was unveiled in 2004.
Former Track and Field Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersey stands with a poster of her new Wheaties box after it was unveiled in 2004.
Stephen Chernin, Getty Images

Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton became the first woman to appear on the front of a Wheaties box in 1984, but women did appear elsewhere on the box in the brand's early years. The first was pioneering aviator and stunt pilot Elinor Smith. Smith, whose picture graced the back of the box in 1934, set numerous world aviation records for endurance and altitude in the 1920s and 1930s.

7. IT USED TO HAVE A MASCOT.

Though we now associate Wheaties with athletes rather than an animal mascot, the cereal did have the latter during the 1950s. In an attempt to appeal to children, Wheaties adopted a puppet lion named Champy (short for "Champion") as the brand's mascot. Champy and his puppet friends sang about the benefits of Wheaties in commercials that ran during The Mickey Mouse Club, and kids could order their own Champy hand puppets for 50 cents (less than $5 today) if they mailed in Wheaties box tops.

8. MICHAEL JORDAN IS THE WHEATIES KING.

Of all the athletes who have graced the cover of a Wheaties box, basketball superstar Michael Jordan takes the cake for most appearances. He's been featured on the box 18 times, both alone and with the Chicago Bulls. He also served as a spokesperson for the cereal, appearing in numerous Wheaties commercials in the '80s and '90s.

9. FANS ONCE GOT THE CHANCE TO PICK A WHEATIES STAR.

MMA star Anthony Pettis on the front of a Wheaties box.
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The public hasn't often gotten a chance to weigh in on who will appear on the Wheaties box. But in 2014, Wheaties customers got to decide for the first time which athlete would be featured nationally. Called the Wheaties NEXT Challenge, the contest allowed people to vote for the next Wheaties Champion by logging their workouts on an app platform called MapMyFitness. Every workout of 30 minutes or more counted as one vote. Participants could choose between Paralympic sprinter Blake Leeper, motocross rider Ryan Dungey, mixed-martial-artist Anthony Pettis, lacrosse player Rob Pannell, or soccer player Christen Press. Pettis won, becoming the first MMA fighter to appear on the box in early 2015.

10. THERE WERE SEVERAL SPINOFFS THAT DIDN'T CATCH ON.

Three different Wheaties boxes featuring Tiger Woods sitting together on a table
Tiger Woods's Wheaties covers, 1998
Getty Images

Faced with declining sales, Wheaties introduced several spinoff cereals during the 1990s and early 2000s, including Honey Frosted Wheaties, Crispy Wheaties 'n Raisins, and Wheaties Energy Crunch. None of them sold very well, and they were all discontinued after a few years. The brand kept trying to expand its offerings, though. In 2009, General Mills introduced Wheaties Fuel, a version of the cereal it claimed was more tailored to men's dietary needs. Wheaties Fuel had more vitamin E and—unlike the original—no folic acid, which is commonly associated with women's prenatal supplements. Men didn't love Wheaties Fuel, though, and it was eventually discontinued too. Now, only the original "breakfast of champions" remains.

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